Politics of Human Nature 13: Canaille. John Adams, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, wrote that "there is a natural Aristocracy among men; the grounds of which are Virtue and Talents." There exists also a kind of natural Chandela or rabble, the grounds of which are vice and incompetence. Of course, in a society besotted with egalitarian sentiments , no one wants to admit such a thing. But it is true nonetheless. There exists a type of person who seems congenitally dysfunctional and incapable of living even a life of genteel and honorable poverty. One may pity such people as much as one wishes—for they really are pitiful—but one should not sentimentalize them. They may be unfortunate, unlucky, entirely blameless for what they have become. Their dysfunction may be cause by mental illness or some other congenital or acquired defect, such as injury to the fore brain or an innate chemical imbalance. Or it may be that these individuals (or at least some of them) are entirely or largely to blame for their sorry plight. Their dysfunction may be an expression of a narcissistic craving to avoid work, or an irresponsible preference for wiling away one’s time in a drunken stupor. Whatever the cause, the fact is that there will always exist some individuals who either can’t or won’t take care of themselves and who therefore cause problems for the rest of us. What is to be done about such people?
We know what Rand opposed in terms of “solutions” to this problem. She opposed any public financed welfare state or “safety net” that might take care of these people and get them off the streets. From Rand’s perspective, it is immoral to take money from the productive and give it to the unproductive. Very well. Then what is to be done? It simply will not do to say: “Leave them alone: let ‘reality’ or ‘nature’ take care of them.” Reality and nature won’t take care of them without first causing great inconvenience for the rest of us. I live in an area which attracts vagrants like a corpse attracts flies. These vagrants cause all kinds of problems for local businesses, from driving away customers through aggressive panhandling to defecating on the sidewalks and on the street.
An Objectivist might (and probably would) argue that these activities are (or ought to be) crimes and that the offenders should be arrested, convicted and punished. Yet, given the costs of convicting and then incarcerating vagrants, we would still find ourselves taking money from the productive to support the unproductive. Indeed, it would probably be cheaper to set up tents and a soup kitchen a few miles outside of town and try to draw the homeless hither. But how many Objectivists could bring themselves to accept such a solution, given their horror of anything that smacks of “welfare” or state assistance? In other words, they are not serious about the problem: they merely wish to repeat their various laissez-faire mantras and slogans. They do not wish to be bothered with the practical challenges that vagrancy poses to society. Instead, they bury these details under the vagueness and obscurity of their abstract doctrines.
Why should the idea of public assistance be so very dreadful to a reasonable person? Even from the point of view of the most callous self-interest, it is better to get the homeless off the street and into shelters, if only to keep them from spreading disease and being a nuisance to the rest of us. There is, after all, no cheaper solution to the problem, short of declaring open season on the poor wretches and exterminating them. Rand claims that the moral is the practical; but in this case, Objectivists have taken their moral principles to impractical conclusions.